Writing Art History Since 2002

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Michael Stevenson | Cape Town

In 1989, photographer Gideon Mendel exhibited a body of work at the former Market Galleries documenting a rally held by the neo-fascist Afrikaner Weerstandbeweging. The visuals of his exhibition Beloofde Land were dominated by the fascistic pomp of his subject’s insignia and the camp militarism of their parades. But Mendel also succeeded in deconstructing the banality beneath the muscle flexing. Predictably, given the era in which it was displayed, the exhibition ignited the rancour both of AWB supporters and anti-apartheid activists. The former accused Mendel of demonising their cause, of reducing it to a fascistic caricature of itself, the latter decried it as a glorification of an ignominious ideology. Of course, neither critiques served as accurate barometers of Mendel’s motives. Mired in an emotionally charged subject matter, these responses also ignored the subtle layers evoked through their content.But both time and the shifting politics of power blunt even the most emotional edges. If viewed today Mendel’s images would appear surreal and muted – neutralised into innocuous relics of a bygone era. David Goldblatt’s Some Afrikaners Revisited evokes a similarly surreal response. The loci of his extensive essay are smallholdings near Randfontein, some of his photographs drawn from essays he produced on the theme for Tatler magazine, also images he took in Gamkaskloof, a remote Karoo enclave otherwise known as Die Hel. This exhibition serves as the amplification of a body of work first published in 1975, under the title Some Afrikaners Photographed, due to be re-published in a revised edition in 2007.In a lengthy, personal exegesis, Goldblatt describes the contradictory responses these communities aroused in him, “of liking, revulsion and fear,” and his “need somehow to come closer to these lives and to probe their meaning for me”.The result is a monumentalised photo album of faces, families, lives and livelihoods that bear the hallmarks of Goldblatt’s signature style. His approach is avowedly unpartisan and non-intrusive, and he offers prosaically poetic insights into communities that might otherwise have been ignored in favour of more overtly sensationalist subject matter. The images evoke the ruggedness of the rural hinterland and the beauty of its harsh lighting. Decades after they were shot they retain a disconcerting seductiveness. Although they do not document shows of power, apart perhaps for those images commemorating the National Party’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations, they bring to mind a variation on Hannah Arendt’s observations on the banality of evil. Goldblatt’s photographs evoke the innocuous faces behind a malevolent ideology, in this case white, close-knit, deeply religious, Afrikaans-speaking communities who believed their connection to the land was divinely anointed, in much the same way that the Afrikaans word aarde (earth) rhymes with genade (grace). These communities were not the masters and commanders of apartheid, simply its foot soldiers.But 40 years later, their sense of agency has been de-activated. The images are now read principally as well-worn period pieces. Like immortalised architectural ruins they exude a greater poetry in reproduction than in reality. And in the very act of preserving a microcosmic slice of history, Goldblatt has constructed a parallel reality – a simulacrum – that monumentalises the otherwise unmemorable, and shrinks those elements whose significance should not diminish. To quote Susan Sontag, they suggest, “The past has become pastness”.As Goldblatt himself has acknowledged, photography is a value-laden practice, both in terms of subject and photographer. But time and distance gives the term “value” a different currency. Retrospectively, the “worth” of these images becomes problematic. Their effect is ambiguous, and the value of re-displaying them becomes limiting without some form of visual follow-up.Forty years after they were shot, they continue to provide significant strands of the texture of daily life under apartheid in South Africa. They remain documents of a now-dissipated community and as a testament to Goldblatt’s humanism and meticulous eye. But they are also inadvertently nostalgic and the boundaries between beauty and truth – the world out there and a world invoked inside the photograph – have become emotionally confused. In a sense, these Afrikaners have not been re-visited but embalmed and displayed as memento mori.This raises another disconcerting observation about the exhibition and its cornucopia of images, courtesy of the marvels of digital printing technology. Usually a master of tightly hewn, lard-free photographic essays, in Some Afrikaners Revisited Goldblatt has eschewed economy of selection. The absence of a rigorous editing eye has done the show a disservice, because the very profusion of images has a de-empathising, anaesthetising effect. It’s a case of the more we see, the less we look. Furthermore, while Goldblatt’s international superstardom is certainly not in question, the bloated prices attached to some of these images most certainly are. They suggest, cynically, that the currency of this show is predicated as much on celebrity as in re-visiting a vanished community

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